Monday, July 14, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 7: ‘Help!’

In this monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

The Beatles’ most recent record—Beatles for Sale (chopped up into Beatles ’65 and Beatles VI in the states)— implied the guys were tiring of their work schedule. Their next project suggested they found a way to stop caring. That way was pot and lots of it. That project was their second feature film and second soundtrack. Help! was a lazily written film, leaning on a so-so James Bond parody and an uncomfortable level of racism that the more forgiving viewer might write off as a parody of Bond’s racist sentiments.

As much charisma as they exuded when away from their mics, The Beatles were still a band first and movie stars a distant second (or third or fourth or fifth). However, that stoned disinterest crept into some of the songs they wrote for the film too. There is some monumental new work to be heard, mostly from Lennon’s increasingly imaginative pen: “Help!”,  with its very real desperation lurking just behind a buoyant beat and melody, “Ticket to Ride”, a chunk of downbeat hypnosis, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, his clearest and most intriguing Dylan homage yet, and “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, a sort of “She Loves You” sequel with an aching vocal. Paul McCartney’s contributions are less interesting. “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” are too repetitive and not melodically inventive enough. Some might toss George Harrison’s “I Need You” among the weaker tracks, though it has too much of his underdog charm and the guitar swells are too appealingly wistful for the song to be dismissed so easily. Nevertheless, this is not the flawless line up of tracks that A Hard Day’s Night enjoyed.  

Although photographer Robert Freeman’s original concept was to have the boys spelling “HELP” in semaphore, he decided the positions were not aesthetically pleasing enough, so he had them spell “NUJV” instead. For the rearranged Capitol cover, only George remained in his rightful place, which did nothing to make the semaphore any less nonsensical.

Side B of the Parlophone album is equally unequal. Impressive new leaps forward (“Yesterday”, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”) are jumbled with the good (“Tell Me What You See”, “It’s Only Love”, “Act Naturally”) and the outright filler (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, “You Like Me Too Much”) senselessly. Capitol did away with all of those tracks for its Help!, slipping some onto Beatles VI and holding others in reserve for future release. Instead it followed in the Cuban heel prints of United Artists’ A Hard Day’s Night, mixing the proper Beatles songs with selections of incidental music from the soundtrack.

The placement of Larry Williams’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” after Paul’s sophisticated “Yesterday” was the first of several bizarre juxtapositions on Beatles LPs, though the haphazard nature of Help! meant this particular one lacked the conscious zaniness of the way “Yellow Submarine” would follow “Here, There, and Everywhere” on Revolver or the back-to-back placements of “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m 64” or “Revolution 9” and “Goodnight”.

While the Help! songs do not compare to the Hard Day’s Night ones, the non-Beatles tracks are much more interesting. George Martin’s personality clashes with director Richard Lester while making A Hard Day’s Night caused him to decline work on Help! So the job went to Ken Thorne, who’d previously worked with Lester on the early pop film It’s Trad, Dad! (featuring such luminaries as Del Shannon, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, and Gene Vincent). Thorne was a year away from winning his one and only Oscar for scoring A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, three years from writing the rousing “Plus Strings” that closes The Monkees’ film Head, and four from contributing music to the Ringo Starr vehicle The Magic Christian. For Help!, he displayed great resourcefulness, creating an exciting variation on Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” (I first owned “Help!” on the 1962-1966 compilation, which opens with Thorne’s “James Bond Theme” in the U.S., so the song always sounds a little naked to me without it), adapting Wagner's Act III prelude to Lohengrin for a piece titled “In the Tyrol” (George Martin would later pull a similar trick when working a snatch of Bach's “Air on the G String” into “Sea of Monsters” on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack), adapting such Lennon/McCartney numbers as “From Me to You”, “You Can’t Do That”, and “A Hard Day’s Night”, and most significantly of all, introducing Indian raga to many a Western ear. Two of these ears belonged to George Harrison, who’d soon develop on The Kinks and The Yardbirds’ experiments with fusing Western Rock & Roll and Indian classical by playing the sitar on The Beatles’ next LP (he first fiddled with the many-stringed instrument while filming the restaurant scene in the film). As for its use on the Help! soundtrack, the brief but frantic “The Chase” is one of the more exciting examples of the instrument on pop wax.

Its gatefold cover gave Help! the whiff of a deluxe package—and caused Capitol to boost the sales price by a dollar— but it was not the first Beatles album to fold out. Capitol’s double-LP The Beatles’ Story had one for practical reasons, and Parlophone’s single-LP Beatles for Sale had one purely for design reasons.

Thanks to Thorne’s creativity, Capitol’s Help! remains a more listenable soundtrack record from start to finish than UA’s A Hard Day’s Night. Not that it’s perfect. Thorne’s Lennon/McCartney interpretations suffer simply from comparison to The Beatles’ unforgettable original versions (though the interpretation of “A Hard Day’s Night” as a raga is pretty neat). The old heavy-handed echo application is in full, full effect on the duophonic mix of “Ticket to Ride”, making an already booming track sound like it’s broadcasting from the floor of Carlsbad Cavern. There are McCartney’s two shoulder-shruggers. Nevertheless, The Beatles and their co-conspiraters were onto something with their latest project: the Western classicalism of “Yesterday” and the Eastern classical influence that “The Chase” and “Another Hard Day’s Night” had on George, the druggy mesmerism of “Ticket to Ride” and personal cry of “Help!”, the flute of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, and the deeper folk effects of  “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, which would be put to striking use on The Beatles’ next album. So would that particular song when it found a prominent home on Capitol’s version of that next album. And for the first time, a U.S. LP arguably would have a leg up on its UK counterpart.
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